Basic English Prosody (Poetry)

English syllables are often said to be stressed or unstressed or emphasized or not. Linguists say there are actually four degrees of stress in spoken English, from strongest to weakest. But in traditional scansion (the marking of the stresses in lines of poetry) we use only two: weak and strong. In this document, a weak syllable is marked with o and a strong one with x. Thus the word "packet" would be x o while the word "begin" would be o x.

A line of poetry is made up of one or more feet, probably because there is a tendency to tap the toe on a strong beat.


Below are listed the names given to the poetic feet by classical metrics. The feet are classified first by the number of syllables in the foot (disyllables have two, trisyllables three, and tetrasyllables four) and secondarily by the pattern of vowel lengths (in classical languages) or syllable stresses (in English poetry) which they comprise.

The following lists describe the feet in terms of vowel length (as in classical languages). Translated into syllable stresses (as in English poetry), 'long' becomes 'stressed' ('accented'), and 'short' becomes 'unstressed' ('unaccented'). For example, an iamb, which is short-long in classical meter, becomes unstressed-stressed, as in the English word "betray".


Macron and breve notation: Long-foot-meter.svg = stressed/long syllableShort-foot-meter.svg = unstressed/short syllable

Short-foot-meter.svgShort-foot-meter.svgpyrrhus, dibrach
Short-foot-meter.svgLong-foot-meter.svgiamb (or iambus or jambus)
Long-foot-meter.svgShort-foot-meter.svgtrocheechoree (or choreus)


Short-foot-meter.svgShort-foot-meter.svgLong-foot-meter.svganapest, antidactylus
Long-foot-meter.svgShort-foot-meter.svgLong-foot-meter.svgcretic, amphimacer


˘˘˘˘tetrabrach, proceleusmatic
¯˘˘˘primus paeon
˘¯˘˘secundus paeon
˘˘¯˘tertius paeon
˘˘˘¯quartus paeon
¯¯˘˘major ionic, double trochee
˘˘¯¯minor ionic, double iamb
˘¯¯¯first epitrite
¯˘¯¯second epitrite
¯¯˘¯third epitrite
¯¯¯˘fourth epitrite


Lines are made up of one or more feet, as follows:

  • monometer: one foot

  • dimeter: two feet

  • trimeter: three feet

  • tetrameter: four feet

  • pentameter: five feet

  • hexameter: six feet

  • septameter: seven feet

So "iambic pentameter" means a line consisting of five iambic feet and "trochaic trimeter" means a line consisting of three trochees.

A Mnemonic

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a little poem as an aid to remembering the feet:

Trochee trips from long to short,

From long to short in solemn sort.

Slow spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able

Ever to come up with Dactyl tri-syllable.

Iambics march from short to long--

With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.

Poetic Forms

  • Lyric: Short poem expressing personal emotion

  • Epic: Long narrative poem involving mythology

  • Ballad: Short poem about a legend or historic event

  • Ode: Meditative poem of middle length, often about a public event or issue

  • Satire: According to Samuel Johnson, "a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured"


  • Italian (Petrarchan, Miltonic) Sonnet: lyric of 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into an octet (rhymed abbaabba) and a sestet (rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd)

  • Spenserian Sonnet: rhymed abab bcbc cdcd ee

  • English (Elizabethan, Shakesperean) Sonnet: rhymed abab cdcd efef gg


5 anapest lines with this scheme:

  • Lines 1,2,5: [˘] ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ [˘] [˘]

  • Lines 3,4: [˘] ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ [˘] [˘]

There was a young lady of Niger.

Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.

They returned from the ride

With the lady inside,

And the smile on the face of the tiger.